President Bush, trying to stem political damage from the deepening savings and loan crisis, will meet Friday with U.S. attorneys from across the nation to talk about the prosecution of thrift cases, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
Congressional Democrats have charged that the number of prosecutions from the thrifts bailout is shrouded in secrecy. They accuse the Justice Department of mounting a cover-up to protect Bush and hide its own inefficiency.
Allegations that Bush's son, Neil, was involved in wrongdoing at a Denver thrift are fueling the secrecy, Democrats charge. The Justice Department rejects the charges and the White House says Democrats are trying to capitalize on the issue for political gain.
"I talked with (U.S. Attorney General) Dick Thornburgh at lunch yesterday," Bush said at a news conference. "I got some impressive numbers of the numbers of cases that are being followed up on now, and I expect we'll see plenty more."
Attending the session Friday will be Thornburgh, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and the 93 U.S. attorneys who were told to attend. "They will discuss prosecution of savings and loan cases. They will be sharing information," department spokesman Dan Eramian told reporters.
Eramian said he had no other details when asked whether the meeting was part of an administration political offensive aimed at countering the growing criticism.
The House Banking subcommittee on financial institutions says it has tried since Jan. 4 to get data on the state of prosecutions but the Justice Department will not talk. "If they were doing a good job, they would want to let the world know," said Curtis Prins, subcommittee majority staff director.
He said the lack of data suggested a lack of prosecutions, which spell bad news for U.S. taxpayers who must foot the bailout bill -- $300 billion with interest payments over the next 30 years.
Public Citizen, a lobbying group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, said lack of enforcement of cases was adding to the cost. It said thrift losses due to criminal behavior were estimated at $16 billion, but prosecutions of individuals and S&Ls have recovered less than $100 million.
Even though Congress authorized $75 million this year to hire more prosecutors and FBI agents to handle thrift cases, the administration only asked for $50 million.
Many of the hundreds of savings and loan failures have been due to mismanagement and outright fraud and abuse, according to federal regulators.
Congressional Democrats charge that the administration is reluctant to go after those who may be guilty because the scandal may reflect badly on the president, especially after allegations his son, Neil, used his job as a director of Silverado Savings and Loan to benefit himself and business associates.
"They're trying to hide their inefficiencies, and on Silverado, they're trying not to embarrass the president because his son is involved," Prins said.